Book Reviews

Book Review: Remember

book cover: Remember by Lisa Genova

Remember by Lisa Genova is a non-fiction book that explores how we do, and don’t, remember. Genova is a neuroscientist who’s also the author of five fiction books, all of which I’ve read. They feature characters with neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s (Still Alice) and Huntingdon’s (Inside the O’Briens).

The book begins by describing how memories are formed, and the amazing process by which creating memories creates structural and connective changes in the brain. Genova points out that popular understanding of how memory works can miss the mark. For example, memories aren’t stored in the hippocampus, and muscle memory isn’t stored in the muscles.

The book explains different types of memory, including semantic (described as the Wikipedia of the brain), episodic (for things that have happened to us), and prospective (things we have to remember to do in the future). You’ll learn why you go into a room and forget what on earth you’re there for, and Genova reassures readers that using a to-do list isn’t somehow cheating.

As much as you might like to think that your episodic memory is quite accurate, Genova bursts that bubble. When the original memory was encoded, it didn’t capture everything that was going on at the time, just what stood out to you. What I found really fascinating was that each time we recall a memory, it changes a bit, and this overwrites the original memory, so it’s like an old-school game of telephone where the original message gets more and more garbled as it gets passed along.

Genova also explains that, when faced with leading questions, people will fabricate memories, and eyewitness accounts are highly unreliable. That certainly doesn’t bode well for our legal system. Do you feel confident that certain memories are accurate? Turns out that confidence has no bearing on their level of accuracy.

There’s a chapter devoted to tip of the tongue experiences. These occur when we know a word but can’t immediately bring it to mind until it jumps out at you two hours later while you happen to be sitting on the toilet. Doing this (and doing it quite regularly) is not, in fact, a sign that you’re losing your mind. In my case, sometimes I feel like my mind is permanently lost, but that’s a whole other issue.

The book is full of surprising tidbits and explanations, like the Baker/baker paradox, whereby you’re more likely to remember someone is a baker than you are to remember their name is Baker. Putting people in boxes can be bad in terms of discrimination, but apparently it helps us to remember.

You’ll learn the difference between normal age-related memory changes and the changes caused by dementia. There are also tips to improve your memory (chronic stress bad, sleep very, very good). Finally, there’s an appendix that pulls it all together, including the specific things you can do to improve your memory.

While the book is very informative, it’s presented in a conversational rather than academic tone. The examples used are realistic and help to make the concepts relatable. Genova seems very authentically present in the writing, and isn’t afraid to make fun of herself, such as when she’s describing her fussy coffee order that the baristas at Starbucks manage to remember.

This book made my inner geek very happy, but I think it will be much more widely appealing than simply my inner geek. Memory is obviously very important to all of us, and this is a great opportunity to learn more about it.

Remember is available on Amazon.

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other book reviews here.

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: Remember”

  1. Fascinating! It reminds me of the books by Oliver Sacks. It sounds like a very helpful and reassuring book. I’m always losing my word midsentence when I’m talking (not writing). It’s always the noun, too. “Are you going to the store? I’m out of… uh… I need some… ohhh.” [Shaking my head at myself.]

    I think my episodic memory is freakishly good because I can remember conversations from decades ago and incredibly vivid events. For example, when I was a little girl, I was walking home from the park with Granny Smith and my dad. A driver didn’t stop properly at a stop sign, and Granny Smith said something like, “That was a running stop. Shameful.” And I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I asked and she explained it to me. (Huh. Another piece of the Meg puzzle?) Sometimes I think I’m too impressionable for my own good. But anyway, my memory is overflowing with such conversational tidbits.

  2. I feel that memories are fragmented for that is how I think mine are. I agree that we remember what stands out at a moment.
    I can remember certain instances and when I ask my aunt she has no memory of it and she was there. I do not believe I am making things up, but I am not sure. Sound flaky?

    1. I think that comes back to what the author was saying about memory being selective based on what we pay attention to. Her brain might not have picked out that event to encode in long-term memory, even though she was there at the time.

    2. As an example, I don’t remember how many times I went to the bathroom yesterday. I was there, but my brain decides that information isn’t important, so it doesn’t store it.

  3. This sounds like a great book that will help me in my therapy process. Thank you!

  4. I’m putting this on my Goodreads list (so I’ll remember it). Yay. My current Dr. says I’m a “poor historian” and he cannot seem to guess why, even though I’ve had ECT and a traumatic past. Should be interesting! Thanks!

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